Thursday, September 24, 2009

The Trouble With Rich People

What's wrong with them?

The question keeps coming up.

I’m surrounded by rich people; I work for them on a daily basis; I have wealthy family members and friends, as well as various in-laws and acquaintances who would be considered rich by any normal standard, though they deny it stridently, and act insulted if you mention … not the elephant – more like the 1955 Bentley S1 Continental touring car in the room. Or the Matisse cut-outs on the wall. Almost without exception they follow rigid protocols of behavior that I find baffling, mean-spirited, stingy and awful.

Years ago, I overheard a friend of mine, beseeching a wealthy patron for another cash transfusion to his struggling literary magazine. I listened, stunned by the tone of the exchange. At the time I thought it was a perverse anomaly. I know better now.

“ --perhaps the magazine ought to fail,” David, the benefactor was telling my friend Toby, when I happened on their conversation. I paused in the shadowed hallway to listen.

“Maybe,” Toby said. “But I can’t really deal with that idea right now. I have a staff of ten and a growing subscription base and I can’t let a two week cash flow problem ruin that. You have to see that I can’t just -- ”


“I can’t just let everything – what?”

“You talk too much. You don’t listen. That may very well be one of the reasons your business ventures fail so consistently. You can’t always count on this kind of free ride. It’s making you lazy and careless.”

I almost laughed out loud at this comment: David had in the time I had known him, never let anyone slip more than a word or two between the cracks of his self-important monologues; he had never shown a speck of interest in anyone else’s life, their problems or their ideas. As to the notion of a free ride, David Barandes had been bequeathed a free ride unparalleled in the history of the human species. He had never worked a day in his life, never done a scrap of laundry, cooked a meal, or even paid a bill: the Barandes family domestic staff and accountants had always handled such petty details. I remembered the lovely Jaguar XKE that he totaled at Hampshire, skidding on some black ice, driving too fast one February night. The car had barely been towed away when an equally stunning 1964 Shelby Mustang appeared in the Merrill House parking lot.

After this life of anesthetizing privilege, he had the casual temerity to lecture Toby (who held down two jobs to support himself and the crazy dream of his little magazine) about a ‘free ride.’ Of course Toby let the comment strut past; you didn’t argue with David when you were pleading for his money.

“I understand that,” Toby said.

“It took you an extra year to pay me back last time,” David continued.

“I know. I’m sorry about that. It was just -- ”

“You’re talking again.”

“I – okay. Go on.”

“This is a relatively trivial issue. A magazine that no one really cares about, with the possible exception of you and my wife. But you may need money for some serious reason some day. You might find yourself with a real emergency on your hands. You might need medical attention. Or bail. Your credit is non-existent – I checked. In an actual crisis, you’d have nowhere else to turn. I’m your bank of last resort. So pay this money back on time, Toby. Every penny, including the low interest I’m charging so that I won’t have to pay a gift tax on my generosity.”

“I --”

“Because if you don’t, if you’re a day late or a penny shy, when that day comes you’ll get nothing from me. I’ll watch you go down and hope it teaches you a lesson.”

I tip-toed on to the bathroom, shaking my head in baffled wonderment: only David Barandes could turn a moment of generosity into a threat.

Or so I thought the time.

I’ve seen similar moments since, an experienced many of them myself. For example: the wealthy dowager (I’m talking about a personal fortune of close to fifty millions dollars, barely scathed by the recent financial crisis), blithely showing off some new extravagance to the niece who, with her sisters, was providing hospice care for their mother with no help from anyone. The work was exhausting, even traumatic, and the aunt could have provided round the clock nursing care just by dipping her gold-plated ladle into the limitless sea of money at her disposal. She wouldn’t even have noticed the expense. With literally no effort (her accounts could have handled the transaction), she could have made life bearable for her nieces and eased her sister’s dying immeasurably. But it never occurred to her. Instead she spent hundreds of thousand of dollars on some vain frivolity … and carelessly boasted about it to the sleepless, harrowed young woman who was working around the clock less than a mile away. This seemed impossibly cruel to me, but I was accustomed to this kind of behavior by then. The wealthy lawyer who contributes a pittance to his infirm mother’s living expenses (But never cancels a vacation); the billionaire who left his struggling kids nothing but a few sticks of furniture.

It all feels the same; the wealthy customers who assume everyone is trying to take advantage of them, the rich girlfriend who stuffed cash in my pockets before we went to dinner so that no one would suspect she was paying the tab. The guilt, paranoia and mendacity never seem to change.

So I started to wonder – is this nature or nurture? Do the rich people learn these defensive behaviors, this callous oblivion, from their parents? Or is it hard-wired into the lizard brain of the human species? Is it a mental illness, or an atavistic hangover from the cave-man days when an extra pelt hidden under a rock could mean the difference between life and death?

I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s a little of both. Old money and new money do have small variations in their behaviors. Generally old money people pretend they’re poor (“We’ve just been leveled by the taxes this year. I don’t know what we’re going to do.”) whereas new money people pretend you’re rich (“Come to Gstaad with us! We’ll have so much fun!). But the same strategy of dissimulation animates both tactics. The purpose is to conceal or elide the appalling gulf that separates them from the rest of the population. To admit their true status would be catastrophic. They would have to feel unbearable guilt or attempt unsustainable acts of generosity. They would be set upon by the jackals of the underclass and torn to pieces. Better to build walls and moats, live in gated communities, dress down and only speak the truth to other members of the tribe.

Much of this is learned behavior, and the exquisite tedium of their cocktail party conversations (A Nantucket fund-raiser sparkles with preening yacht comparisons, pompous wine recommendations and political hokum) testify to the fact that few of them have learned much else. The billionaire who made his brother-in-law split the tolls on the drive from New York to Connecticut, who called his party guests “free-loaders” because they were drinking his liquor, clearly learned that crass and small-minded parsimony at a parent’s knee. It might have been the same parent, in the same tight-fisted culture, that taught J. Paul Getty to install a pay phone in his house so that greedy guests wouldn’t run up his phone bill.

So perhaps there’s nothing inherent in us that drives this harsh and barbaric materialism. I was beginning to think so – and imagining new schools that would train the children of wealth to a new, open-hearted humanity – until I came into some money myself.

Actually, it’s better than that. I just thought I was coming into the money. I never actually saw a dime. The big deal fell through (Most Hollywood deals fall through –except the drug deals). But for a few weeks there, I had a vision--I finally saw the prospect of a windfall, a period of true a shining glimpse of authentic prosperity opening up on the horizon. No more debt! No more overdraft fees. No more punishing 60 hour work-weeks.

Instead: travel, freedom, peace of mind.

And what was the first thing I thought of? How to to hide my new fortune from my friends. How to protect it from my greedy ex-wife. How to use it without giving myself away, what story I could concoct to explain a new car or a flat screen TV (Small inheritance? customer cast off?).

I was acting exactly like all the rich people I hated – and I was still broke! Just he thought of money had poisoned my mind and kick-started all the same pathologies I’d been denouncing for years. Maybe those responses are actually instinctive. Or maybe I’m just another stingy jerk.

I can’t imagine how awful I’d be if I actually did get rich.But much as I hate to admit it, I’d really like to find out.


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